In StarTrek, the characters are able to go from their ship to a planet’s surface almost instantly via the transporter device. The transporter works by converting the matter of a person into energy, beaming that energy to a target location, and then rematerializing the person. Now, there is an interesting philosophical question that arises from this method of transportation: If the physical brain of the person being transported is taken apart molecule by molecule, atom by atom, then what happens to that person’s consciousness? If consciousness cannot exist without matter, as some propose, then is the transported person’s consciousness obliterated in the matter-to-energy conversion, which could then be considered death? If so, what rematerializes at the other end?
Another angle on this thought experiment is from the film The Prestige. (Spoiler Alert!) In that film, one of the main characters, Robert Angier, has a machine which enables him to perfectly clone himself. He uses that machine to perform a magic trick in which he disappears on stage and then reappears at the back of the theatre behind the audience. Of course it is an amazing trick as he would have no time to get back there so fast. But, it is really his clone who appears. Meanwhile, the original Angier on stage falls through a trap door below the machine into an awaiting water tank, which closes and locks, thus drowning him. The clone goes on to perform the trick again the next show, clones himself, drowns, and so on and so on. Why would he do something so crazy? Well, you have to watch the film. The real question is: Does Robert Angier still exist after the first cloning?
I had an uncle, Uncle Fred, who was my dad’s older brother. He moved to Canada from Germany after WW2 to start a new life. In Canada, he started his own electrical company, which he ran for a couple of decades before handing it over to his sons and retiring. Late in his life he had Alzheimer’s disease. The disease progressed to the point where he believed his wife was his mother, he still owned his electrical company, his sons were his business partners, and he still lived in Germany. Because of the brain damage caused by Alzheimer’s, his identity and his consciousness became a chaotic mix and match of various events throughout his lifetime. Did my Uncle Fred still exist at that point? Or, had the real man died already?
There is no doubt that my consciousness, my identity, and my personality are dependant on my brain. If my brain is damaged or functions abnormally, I change. It is a bit disturbing to think about. What happens if my brain is irreversibly damaged? What happens when my brain dies?
As a Christian, I believe that I will remain even after my brain dies. How is this possible? It is only possible if I exist primarily, first and foremost, not as a physical being, but as an idea of God. I suppose you could call that idea a spirit.
I’m speculating now of course, but I believe God’s ideas are not like our ideas. For God, His ideas are so perfect, and so powerful, they all become realities. God does not have half-baked ideas floating around in His mind with which, through trial and error, He comes up with final decisions. God’s ideas are perfect from conception; and being perfect from conception, they become immediate realities. Or, if they are delayed realities, that is only because God wants them to be delayed. The Bible would call these ideas of God His Word. (See Isaiah 55:8-11)
Jonathan Edwards wrote, in his essay on the Trinity, in regards to the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity:
“…God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of Himself, as it were an exact image and representation of Himself ever before Him and in actual view, and from hence arises a most pure and perfect act or energy in the Godhead, which is the Divine love, complacence and joy. The knowledge or view which God has of Himself must necessarily be conceived to be something distinct from His mere direct existence. There must be something that answers to our reflection. The reflection as we reflect on our own minds carries something of imperfection in it. However, if God beholds Himself so as thence to have delight and joy in Himself He must become his own object. There must be a duplicity. There is God and the idea of God, if it be proper to call a conception of that that is purely spiritual an idea.”
Basically, what Edwards is saying is that God’s idea of Himself is so perfect that it becomes a Second Person, just as real as the First. And the love expressed between the First Person and the Second Person is so perfect, that it itself becomes a Third Person, just as real as the other Two. That’s the Trinity: Father (First), Son (Second), and Holy Spirit (Third).
I exist as an idea of God. An idea so perfect, it becomes real. This is my source of life. The physical is how God brought the idea of me into being, but the idea of me is not based on the physical. Also, the idea of me will never be extinguished — from the moment of my conception, I will always exist. Why? Because God will never forget me.
As a Christian, I believe that when I die, when my brain dies, I will still exist. Exactly in what form I will exist, I don’t know, but I will still be the same I I am today, conscious and aware. Then, sometime in the future, I will be resurrected in a new body, with brain and all. And when I am resurrected, I will not be a Swampman.
The Swampman is a philosophical thought experiment put forth by Donald Davidson in the 1980s…
“The experiment goes like this. Suppose Davidson went for a walk in a swamp and gets hit by a lightning bolt, and consequently dies. Coincidentally, at the very same moment this happens, in another part of the swamp, the lightening rearranges some molecules into the same form of Davidson’s body, copying every structure completely. This ‘being’ is the Swampman, which looks exactly like Davidson to the smallest respects, and it walks out of the swamp. Is this being Davidson? Is this being a being, that is, is this being a person? Does this being have the same thoughts as Davidson? Does this being have thoughts at all? Davidson’s own answer leans towards negative towards all of these questions.
“The reason Davidson opines that the Swampman is not Davidson, and in fact, the Swampman might not even be a person, is because Davidson holds that that Swampman is incapable of cognitive thought, because the Swampman has no causal history, and a being needs causal history of thoughts to have any cognizance in the first place. So while the Swampman’s utterances may feel like they have meaning, according to Davidson, they actually don’t. The Swampman’s propositions are thus not genuine according to Davidson. Davidson while claiming the Swampman’s utterances have no meaning, does not actually outright doubt Swampman’s personhood, yet refers to the Swampman as an ‘it’ rather than as a ‘he’ and it seems to regard the Swampman as not having meaningful qualia.”*
At my resurrection, the idea of me, which has always been and will always be sustained by God whether I am in physical form or not, will be placed once again into a physical body. I will not be a clone, or a replica. My consciousness will be an uninterrupted flow of existence from now until then.
One could argue that God will take the exact same atoms of my original body at the time of my death and use those same atoms to recreate my new body. Why not? It doesn’t really matter I suppose — the atoms which made up my body as a child will probably have all been replaced by the time I am an old man.
If I buy a motorcycle, and over the course of 20 years, replace every part of that motorcycle, is it still the same motorcycle?
The idea remains.
*See Donald Davidson – Swampman
The Trouble with Transporters